NPR Story
4:16 pm
Fri November 15, 2013

Crowdsource Mapping Helps Recovery Efforts In Philippines

Originally published on Fri November 15, 2013 3:36 pm

The United Nations says 11 million people are affected by Typhoon Haiyan, which hammered the islands a week ago today. The death toll is now more than 3,000, and the survivors are still struggling to get the food and water they so desperately need.

Blocked roads, destroyed buildings and downed telecommunications systems are making it difficult for relief workers to reach some of the most devastated regions of the Philippines.

But more than 900 people are lending a hand remotely by collaborating on online maps, through the OpenStreetMap network. The maps use satellite technology and the knowledge of the public to help relief organizations, like the Red Cross, know where buildings and roads are located and how and where to best deliver supplies.

Here & Now’s Robin Young speaks with Dale Kunce, a geospatial engineer with the American Red Cross.

“Roads and buildings are the most important things for us,” Kunce says. “We need to map the roads so that we know where to go, so that we know how to get around, basically. We wanted to map all of the buildings so that we could map what was there before, so that we could start to do damage assessments to understand the overall calamity of what happened, so that we could then prioritize different areas.”

We also hear reports from the BBC’s Paul Moss in the port city of Ormoc, on Leyte Island, and the BBC’s Rajesh Mirchandani in the heavily damaged city of Tacloban.

Hear the report by Rajesh Mirchandani
Video: Dale Kunce on Humanitarian OpenStreetMap at the Red Cross



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It's been one week now since Typhoon Haiyan tore through the Philippines. The official death toll is more than 3,000, and survivors remain without adequate food, water or shelter. Here's Mar Roxas, interior secretary of the Philippines.

SECRETARY MAR ROXAS: Imagine a situation from ground zero where on day one you have to set up the mechanisms to feed, clothe, shelter 275,000 families, in a situation where everything, including the social structures, the government structures, were swept away.

CHAKRABARTI: Relief efforts are ramping up, but aid has been slow to reach some of the hardest hit areas. The BBC's Paul Moss is in the port city of Ormoc on Leyte Island.

PAUL MOSS: It is hard to believe that this was once a regular town hall just like any other. The great concrete building, which sits in the center of Ormoc, has now been converted into an emergency relief center. But more than that, it's falling apart. The windows are blown in. The roof has collapsed. And rain keeps bucketing down on the extraordinary team of people who are working here, trying to coordinate the relief effort.

There's one group of people near me who are working on food supplies. Another group is trying to get a hold of medicines, which really are very badly needed here, most by people who were injured in the typhoon or who've got sick in the day since then through contaminated water or exposure. And the man who has the unenviable challenge of running this operation is a local city councilor, Ruben Capahi.

RUBEN CAPAHI: If you say this is a challenge, it's - that's an understatement. This is day six. Obviously, it's better than day five. Yesterday was better than the day before. But Ormoc was badly hit. I suppose that being calm and collected and organized is what we need now. We try to give out the impression that government is in control, government is working, but I do not now know what the world normal means.

MOSS: I want to ask you, as a city councilor here, do you think Ormoc was sufficiently prepared for the typhoon, given that you knew it was coming?

CAPAHI: Nobody could have been prepared for something as devastating as this. We tried our best. We were very aggressive in pre-emptive evacuation of areas that we thought were vulnerable to the extent, Paul, that we sent out police to forcibly evacuate those who refuse to in those areas that we thought were vulnerable. But the sheer scale of the devastation is difficult to prepare for. We've never had anything like this in the Philippines, I think.

MOSS: Around the world, there have been reports, complaints even, that the aid isn't getting through to the people who need it. Do you think that's a fair criticism? Do you know what the problem is?

CAPAHI: We had that problem here in Ormoc because, understandably, I think the attention or the focus might have been in Tacloban. That may account for the fact that there was a gap when no relief goods came in from the national government. For aid to come in, Paul, from my experience here, you actually need logistics, outside logistics. Helpers here need helping. Rescuers need rescuing. We city councilors suffer just as much as the next guy.

MOSS: I want to ask you, have you had much sleep since the typhoon happened?

CAPAHI: Sleep? What's that?


That report from the BBC's Paul Moss in Ormoc on Leyte Island.

And since Haiyan hit, the Red Cross has been using a crowdsourcing tool to improve maps and help decide how and where to send aid. It's called the OpenStreetMap. It uses satellite imagery and input from volunteers, including people with knowledge of the region, to update maps of roads and buildings.

Dale Kunce is the senior geospatial engineer with the American Red Cross. Dale, this mapping began before the storm hit. What are the kinds of things that people are mapping?

DALE KUNCE: Right now what we've done is we've asked people to map roads and buildings. People are mapping other things, but roads and buildings are the most important thing for us. We need to map the roads so that we know where to go, so that we know where - how to get around, basically. We wanted to map all of the buildings so that we could map what was there before so that we could start to do damage assessments and do - understand sort of the overall calamity of what happened so that we could then prioritize different areas.

YOUNG: Well, then who are these people giving you this information? Because we've spoken to so many people who can, first of all, barely get into these areas, but also they have no communication. So we spoke to a missionary on Cebu Island who told us that he'd driven nine hours to get to a city on the tip of Cebu and he had to remove trees. Lines were down. The road was completely blocked. But he - other than the phone call to us, he has no access to your website. He has no way to input that, and barely could tell anybody that. So who's getting this information out to the maps?

KUNCE: Yeah. So that's one of the great things is that we have great partners around the U.S. government, and in particular the Department of State here in D.C. They have a group called the Humanitarian Information Unit. And they have worked with a lot of the different satellite providers to provide us imagery of both before the event and after the event, so that we can use really good, high-resolution imagery to get a really good understanding of what's going on. And it really - we're encouraging people from all around the world to contribute, that you don't have to be an aid worker on the ground.

YOUNG: Yeah. People who have the technology for whatever work they do, and they can see these things. Well, this has been used before, in 2010 in Haiti. How did it help there?

KUNCE: Well, in Haiti, yeah, I mean, for the earthquake that happened in Port-au-Prince, that was the first real coming out for the OpenStreetMap community. Because when you went to Port-au-Prince the day before the earthquake, there was no map of Port-au-Prince. There was maybe the main highway and another secondary road. There was no map.

Today, if you go to Port-au-Prince, and you look at the map on OpenStreetMap, you see a completely built-out urban network, that every alley, every water point, every sanitary point, every restaurant, everything has been mapped, because, the same kind of stuff that's happening in the Philippines, we need to be able to understand sort of where stuff is so that we can get there, so that we can help out.

YOUNG: Look, aid is just getting in, but are you hearing from people, thank you for telling me that road was closed, or that that building was no longer there? It's really helped. Are you getting that feedback?

KUNCE: Yeah. I mean, I've heard some anecdotal stuff, sort of, you know, how people are using the stuff that we've planned and mapped. You know, that they're looking at major highways to, you know, what better routes to take, and that they're looking at sort of damage assessment, you know, to get an understanding of the breadth of the damage of different places.

And that's really, I think, where a lot of the assessment is going on still now, that, yeah, it takes a while for aid to get there, but when it gets there, we want it to sort of go exactly where it needs to be. And that's really what our job is.

YOUNG: Dale Kunce, geospatial engineer with the American Red Cross, on their crowdsourcing of maps to help the Philippines. Dale, thanks so much.

KUNCE: Thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: And, Robin, you have been looking at our website We've got a link to OpenStreetMap there. And it's really remarkable in the age of technology how people even thousands of miles away can help in disasters like this.

YOUNG: You can just sign if you know the area, get an account and get going. Let them know what you know.

CHAKRABARTI: One again, that link is at This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.